The Folk-Music Business
The very idea of folk music becoming a business is enough to make any serious folk musician have serious second thoughts. It is a contradictory notion, but folk music does indeed have a business side. Artists like Pete Seeger and Leadbelly were doing paid gigs as early as the 1930’s and 1940’s, but historically speaking, traditional folk musicians were never paid that much to perform. However, it is clear that there is money to be made through folk music, although many scholars have argued that folk music should keep its distance from commercial success and financial rewards. The business itself has expanded in a number of ways, although the popularity of folk music is not great today. There are various organizations devoted to the spread of folk music such as the Hudson Valley Folk Guild, which I have participated in and observed on many different levels. These types of organizations have meetings, publish newsletters, and sponsor open mic events where people sing with one another. In my conversation with Kevin Becker, the founder of the Hudson Folk Guild, we spoke about his organization and how it brings people together in a noncommercial way. When asked about the purpose of folk music, Kevin replied, “it’s built on the notion that everyone can participate, it’s accessible, and because its accessible its relevant to a wider variety of people. The universality of it all means that its communal, we can all take part in it.” Kevin is one of many people around the world who have developed an organization to give folk performers a space to develop their craft and to build an audience.
According to Dick Weissman, author of “Which Side Are You On?,” there are a handful of small record companies that issue the bulk of folk-based recordings. Rounder is the largest of these companies, which has had success in selling Alison Krauss CD’s. They have also released a major reissue of Alan Lomax’s field recordings, which amounts to over 150 albums. There are other labels as well but they are mostly for very specific genres of folk-based music like bluegrass, blues and country. According to Weissman, “singer-songwriters are the artists most apt to end up with major label contracts, because their records usually have the biggest commercial potential.” (p. 246) However, even they do not receive huge financial royalties, because they have to split it with their publisher usually on a 50-50 basis.
One reason that folk performers struggle to gain financial success is that the coffeehouses and clubs that offer performers a place to play typically do not draw large audiences or pay serious money. This is why there has been an emergence of folk festivals. They are good gigs not because they pay particularly well but because they draw huge audiences. Most of them are outdoors, such as the Newport Folk Festival, which cultivates a broad range of folk music and continues to stretch the boundaries to this day. There are others such as the Seattle Folk Life Festival, but they do not pay performers at all. There is huge sense of community in folk music, so perhaps people still find it difficult to factor in money. The fact is that making a living as a musician is a serious business, and it seems that artists and venues need to work together for mutual benefits.